Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movement
By Sunaina Maira
Based on ethnographic research in Palestine, primarily during the Arab uprisings, Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture, and the Youth Movementexplores the intersections between new youth cultures and protest politics among Palestinian youth in the West Bank and Israel. It focuses on Palestinian hip hop and the youth movement that emerged in 2011 as overlapping sites where new cultural and political imaginaries are being produced in the Oslo generation (jil Oslo).
“Youth culture is a key site where young people express their social identities, political perspectives, and imaginings of the future,” writes Sunaina Maira. Maira describes hip hop as a form of youth culture “that is, a group of young people defined by consumption or production of specific cultural forms, in this case hip hop, in relation to the social contradictions faced by these youth in particular political and historical contexts.” Challenging the Oslo framework of national politics and of cultural expression, these young artists and activists are rethinking and reviving the possibility of a decolonial present.
"In her perceptive, sensitive, penetrating analysis of the post-Oslo generation of Palestinian youth, Sunaina Maira paints a dynamic picture of contemporary life, art, and politics for young Palestinians under occupation and within the ’48 borders of Israel—an increasingly neoliberal world in which the Palestinian Authority is the face of the occupation, where claims of political malaise are shattered by new, energetic forms of political and cultural expression—from graffiti to Hip Hop, civil disobedience to BDS. A must-read for anyone remotely interested in the future of Palestine."
Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times
"This rich and valuable book challenges us to think in radical terms about youth resistance in Palestine in the post-Oslo generation. These young people resist the demand to normalize their life under Israeli settler colonialism, while using popular culture to speak back against the necropolitical machinery of elimination. Maira’s book gives us an inspiring and compelling reading of how popular culture becomes another site to narrate and reshape a new politics."
Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, author of Militarization and Violence against Women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East: A Palestinian Case-Study
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1:
One of the most striking, and persistent, observations made by the young people I spoke to, students as well as artists and activists, was that their generation of Palestinian youth wanted an alternative politics and that the pursuit of new cultural forms overlapped with their search for a new politics in the post-Oslo era. Basel said, “We were trying to give voice to an alternative art scene in Palestine, an alternative voice in Palestine that was trying to say something different and to find a different language.” Young artists and activists of jil Oslo were thus engaged in this quest that drew on or revived, in many cases, earlier frameworks of Palestinian resistance or discourses of national identity while (re)creating new cultural idioms or political vocabularies. Yasmine, a young activist from al-Bireh, said eloquently that the independent youth movement’s “aims were to go back to resistance and resuscitate the Palestinian struggle as a national movement,” in the post-Oslo context of general depoliticization and demobilization. As Ahmed, a young activist from Ramallah, astutely observed, “Popular culture plays a massive part in building the national narrative, especially when there’s a problem with that narrative.”
This quest for a new narrative or alternative politics is situated in the post-Oslo moment which heightened for Palestinians, including youth, the contradictions of living in a state without sovereignty, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in an increasingly Judaized East Jerusalem. The youth of jil Oslo, particularly those who are in their late teens to mid-twenties today and were born just before or after the Oslo Accords of 1993, have come of age in a very different political reality than the previous generation. The supposed political withdrawal or apathy of youth has to be understood in a historical context in which youth are not represented in the “leadership and decision-making” of the Palestinian national movement, according to commentators such as Samir Seif. However, as Seif adds, young people were “widely engaged in the organization and leadership of the [first] intifada, its striking forces, its popular committees,” and “young people served in the unified leadership of the intifada.” The young people that I spoke to were also old enough to remember the second intifada, and to have been deeply affected by those memories of occupation, invasion, and resistance. Feryal, a young woman who was from Nablus and remembers living through the months of curfew, said that it was the “traumatizing experience” of the second intifada that motivated her political activism as it did for others to whom I spoke.
Fajr Harb, a young activist from Ramallah who is well known in the youth movement, observed thoughtfully:
To understand Palestinian youth today, you have to understand the previous generation’s politics and Oslo. During the first intifada, the enemy was in the streets. It was very clear who we had to fight. After Oslo, things changed and the Palestinian cause changed. The purpose of Oslo was to divide the West Bank from Gaza from Jerusalem—the purpose was to divide Palestine.
As the lines of national struggle became less clear after Oslo, Palestinians were also increasingly disconnected and divided from one another in the bantustans created by Israel’s fragmentation of the West Bank, using the Wall and the settlements; in an encircled and increasingly peripheralized Jerusalem; and in a besieged and blockaded Gaza. In fact, many commentators observe that it is the Oslo agreements that gave “birth [to] what Jeff Halper has called Israel’s ‘matrix of control’” in Palestinian areas with the construction and expansion of the Wall, settlements, bypass roads, and checkpoints. The colonial state apparatus generated ambiguous legal categories and forms of identity documentation for the colonized population and territories—differentiating between peoples and geographic spaces, for example, in Israel, East/West Jerusalem, Gaza, and West Bank Areas A, B, C. This is what Ann Stoler describes as the inherent blurring of rights and “epistemic murk” constitutive of the architecture of settler colonial states, an ambiguity that is core to imperial biopolitics and its construction of proliferating territorial and identity designations.
The ambiguity of legal identities and the profusion of spatial categorizations has also generated hierarchies among Palestinians based on associated distinctions about who can live where, who can marry whom, or who can travel across which borders. For example, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian addresses the divisions within families in East Jerusalem, some of whose members have Jerusalem identity cards (“blue IDs”) and some of whom have the more restrictive West Bank identification; the fear and anxiety created by living in conditions of “illegality” in Jerusalem; and the ways that this has broken down social and family relations. I heard stories of young people who were interested in a romantic relationship with someone who had a different identity category and chose not to pursue it because it would mean that they may not be able to live together due to Israeli laws regulating residence for Palestinians. One young woman interviewed by Shalhoub-Kevorkian offered an eloquent statement that captured the nature of colonial rule that permeates spaces of intimacy: “Their borders are in our homes, lives, bodies, and relationships.” Young activists from the West Bank and also 1948 Palestine have engaged in creative campaigns to challenge these Israeli laws that regulate residence, romance, and family life, as in the mock “weddings” near the Wall staged by the campaign “Love in the Time of Apartheid” in 2013. Settler colonial rule permeates the most intimate of spaces, reshaping relationships of kinship, desire, marriage, and sociability, which is why it has been described as a form of sociocide in Palestine, a destruction of social relationships and the fabric of society and an assault on the social itself.
Parallel to the colonial partitioning of national space and management of bodies and affective lives, there has been a de-politicization in the post-Oslo moment, not just of youth but also of Palestinian society in general. This is the social and political context in which jil Oslo has come of age. Relative to the mass movements and intense mobilization during the first and second intifadas, there has been a demobilization of Palestinians who are still living under conditions of occupation, if in a different phase of colonial governmentality. Ruanne said incisively that, for Palestinian youth in the 1990s, “It was a moment when the revolutionary movement was, in a sense, dissolving after Oslo. I think probably young Palestinians started looking for something else to articulate their experiences, for they were still experiencing the full force of the racist state.” By the time the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, according to George Giacaman, “most parties, including those on the left, were quickly losing whatever mass base” they had during the first intifada.” There was a decline in the hitherto energetic grassroots involvement of student groups, women’s organizations, and popular committees throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The Oslo Accords introduced a new paradigm for Palestinian politics but also precipitated a “crisis” for the Palestinian national movement, marked by “loss of a clear cause, lack of hope, and perception of the end of the national project.”
The youth of jil Oslo, then, have two major points of departure for their search for an alternative to existing political frameworks. First, youth in the West Bank and Gaza have experienced a restructuring of Israeli military control given that “the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip and the removal of many of the internal checkpoints in the West Bank have created fewer arenas for direct confrontation with the Israeli enemy . . . . interest in traditional youth activism has dwindled and there are fewer sites of direct clashes.” As Ruanne observed, the fragile semblance of “peace” and the relative loosening of restrictions on movement and easing of checkpoints also led to fewer militarized encounters with Israelis that created a schizophrenic reality for this generation: “There is a classic colonial context of double consciousness. The more people here do not interact with Israelis as a colonial force, the more removed they are from that reality.” Feryal said that what was “most depressing” after Oslo was that so little had changed and that “people lose track of why we did this [resistance during the intifadas] in the first place.” The politics of normalization, or what Taraki calls the “new normal politics” of this period, was marked by a “deradicalized politics of normality” and a “new individualistic ethos” that distanced itself from collective struggle.
The contradictory reality of this new phase of colonization is marked by the fact that the Palestinian Authority did not have full sovereignty after Oslo but became the subcontractor for the occupation, in a sense, managing security and repressing dissent through its own internal military and intelligence apparatus. Ramzy Baroud observes of the crisis in Palestinian politics since the concessions made in the Oslo agreements:
. . . for a Palestinian leadership to be acknowledged as such by regional and international players, it has to excel in the art of “compromise”. These carefully molded leaders often cater to the interests of their Arab and Western benefactors, at the expense of their own people. Not one single popular faction has resolutely escaped this seeming generalization. . . . This reality has permeated Palestinian politics for decades. However, in the last two decades the distance between the Palestinian leadership and the people has grown by a once unimaginable distance, where the Palestinian has become a jailor and a peddling politician or a security coordinator working hand in hand with Israel.
Echoing this view, Hafez was critical of the PA’s willingness to comply with externally imposed frameworks and “demands of self-governance” and the “discourse of countering terrorism, according to Western agendas.” Hafez, and many other young (as well as older) activists with whom I spoke, view the PA as a “comprador regime serving Western interests” that has undermined genuine grassroots or mass-based collective resistance.